In recent years, the concept of monstrosity has received renewed attention by literary critics. Much of this criticism has focused on horror texts and other texts that depict supernatural monsters. However, the way that monster theory explores the connection between specific cultures and their monsters illuminates not only our understanding of horror texts, but also our understanding of any significant cultural artwork. Applying monster theory to non-horror texts is a useful and productive way to more fully understand the cultural fears of a society. One text that is particularly fruitful to explore in this context is John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, East of Eden. The personification of evil in the text is one of the most memorable monsters in 20th century American literature—Cathy Ames Trask. Described by the narrator as a monster from birth, Cathy haunts the text. She rejects any and all attempts to force her to behave in socially acceptable ways. Cathy refuses to abide by the roles that mid-century American culture assigned to women, particularly the roles of wife and mother. Feminist theorists have often examined Cathy’s character in this context, although many of them emphasize Steinbeck’s personal misogyny. While Steinbeck’s personal fears have clearly formed the basis of Cathy’s character, the concept of the monster extends beyond idiosyncratic fears. Monster theory, through its emphasis on the particular cultural moment of the monster, allows for a broader understanding of cultural fears. Although the description of Cathy in the text connects her to a long tradition of female monsters, including Lilith and the Siren, Steinbeck’s characterization of the monstrous woman focuses on specific mid-century American cultural fears. The most significant of these cultural fears are those of emasculation and the potential flexibility of gender roles. These fears have often been associated with the feminine monster, but they became a crucial part of postwar American cultural discourse. The character of Cathy Trask, while exhibiting many traits that have been assigned to female monsters during the course of Western history, is essentially a 20th century American monster, one who encapsulates the fears of midcentury American men faced with rapidly changing gender roles and boundaries. The creation of such a horrifyingly monstrous woman, one that continues to haunt the reader even after her eventual de-monstration, testifies to the intense cultural anxiety about gender roles, particularly in the context of the heterosexual nuclear family, present in post-World War II America. This anxiety is dealt with in the figure of the monster Cathy, who represents forbidden desires and is then punished for those desires; her eventual demise reinforces the culturally patriarchal social structure and serves as a warning against transgressive gender behavior.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Warnick, Claire, "Cathy Trask, Monstrosity, and Gender-Based Fears in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden" (2014). Theses and Dissertations. 5282.